Robbie Low prepares for the annual ‘invasion’
'Tis the season to be jolly la la la la la la la la la '
I am writing this in the week before Advent. From my study window my view across the adjoining fields and woodland is uninterrupted down to the sea. The ocean has the lightest of ripples on a near still day and is so silvered by the sun that it joins the ethereal wash of the heavens through a seamless horizon. In the front garden two camellia bushes have mistaken the benevolence of November for early spring and begun to put forth flowers. This year's extraordinary summer seems to be without an end. All of which makes the proximity of Christmas seem absurd to anyone but an ex-pat Aussie used to digesting his figgy pudding at a baking beach barbie.
Nevertheless, there are daily reminders of the imminence of the great festival (or ‘Winterval’ as I believe the multi-culturally correct burghers of Birmingham refer to it). It is already two weeks since one of our local families erected their decorations. Occupying a remote cottage round a sharp descent from the moors on an otherwise unlit road, their attempt, single-handedly, to rival Regent Street, has had unfortunate consequences. So far there have been three accidents on that stretch of road as unsuspecting midnight drivers have been undone by the sudden brilliance of the huge Santa, complete with sleigh and reindeer, cheerily launching himself at them out of the previously black and familiar sky. It is not just the camellias who are misled by unseasonal interventions.
Of course, by the time you read this all may be returned to its normal course. God may be back in his heaven and England restored to the vestigial gloom of childhood December memory. A couple of weeks of relentless downpour or the thin and merciless damp that seeps into the very bones coupled with the sunless days that make even the most optimistic house communicant despair of ever seeing another spring and we should be well on the way to the right atmosphere. English people do not talk about the weather as an avoidance of more serious matters. It is the weather, as much as anything, that forms our character. But that is a whole other article.
Should we get to Bible Sunday wrapped in a seasonal blanket of snow or fog then our emotional body clocks will be able to start preparing for Xmas. And there will be signs following.
The lists will be dusted off, the dead removed, the status of those who have not reciprocated our greetings reassessed. The annual pilgrimage to the temples of materialism begins. Shops groaning with unspeakable luxury will be ransacked for inappropriate tributes to our nearest and dearest who, for the most part, need nothing and desire less. The Norse totem pole, our homage to the old gods, will be collected from the arboreal abattoir and prepared for festooning with bad taste ornaments and lines of cards celebrating, inter alia, Pickwick papers and doughty robins. Economic editors will infuse the daily news with estimates of our expenditure and our consequential debt. Two halves of the same equation, one is apparently good for the country, the other is bad for us. Newspapers (and pulpits) will be filled with the usual round of articles (and sermons) bewailing the commercialization of Xmas and amidst the handwringing and traditional bleating very little will change. The Feast of the Glorious Consumption will be under way. The ‘scripture’ will be amended in the light of our experience and human reason to read,
'Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow…
you will be able to do it all over again !'
Of course it will all be very different for you and me. We will be going to church. There, too, will be much preparation. The beautifying of the building, rehearsal of music and liturgy etc. Tea-towelled children preparing the tableau and fraught clergy balancing a triple sermon demand with the sacramental needs of three old folks homes, hospital calls and a dozen or more regular house communicants. At the end of it all, glorious worship included, most will retire to the comfort of their hearths and not emerge muchly until the next great festival – the January sales.
Even as Christians we will have noticed several things. More people will join us than at any other time of the year. Though if the statistical pattern obtains nationally there will be less than last year which was less than the year before. Given a choice most will opt for the easiest or most sentimental offering, a good carol service or the village children enacting the Nativity.
Midnight Mass will be peopled by less familiar people, less familiar to you, less familiar to the liturgy, less familiar to almost everything except, perhaps, to God. They will come, in their cups many of them, borne hence by their feelings more than their reason or resolution. A vague sense that, inexplicably, all of this is somehow important. It is not just ‘for the children’. They will come because people are sentimental, for good and ill, and also out of a rarely exposed sense of tribal loyalty and cultural identity.
It is an annual challenge to the people of God to know how, in this one extravagant opportunity, to minister to so many who , for a passing moment at least, are not so far off and have come to kneel with us before the child of the arms of Mary.
What they will take away from church that night, apart from a blessing, will depend as much on the congregation as the priest. Perhaps more, as the priest depends so much upon the prayers of his people anyway. What the annual pilgrims will remember, long after they have forgotten Father's brilliant sermon, is the authenticity and conviction of the people of God. They will also appreciate our warmth and solidarity, the sense of belonging yet welcome to the stranger. But it is our authenticity and conviction that will shine out in the darkest night. When they join us for worship, from the glorious cathedral settings to the humblest parish communion, our overnight visitors should sense that they are caught up in something beyond their experience and beyond all our words. No one will be a greater witness to this reality than every regular member of the congregation. From the focus, attention, devotion of each one of us, from the utter and profound seriousness of each one of us and from the transparent joy of each one of us, our guests, God's guests, will sense that they are in the presence of something extraordinary. And our liturgy and our preaching will make clear whose real and abiding presence that is. The mysterious X in the secular Xmas will be revealed as the incarnate Christ – Jesus, Lord and Saviour. This is the place where evangelism and worship coinhere. And these are also the people for whom Christ died.
It all seems a very big ask. Yet, in truth, it is different from an ordinary Sunday, or weekday communion for that matter, only in the scale of the celebration and the length of the guest list. The divine reality is not greater or lesser for all our human perspective. Just as our daily prayers and preparations are summed up in our Sabbath celebrations so our ordinary Sundays' work of the Liturgy lifts us towards the great festivals of our Faith. There are no short cuts. The road to the mountain-top is marked out in the footsteps of daily worship.
We expend a great deal of effort in preparing the church building for the great festivals. This is enormous fun and a time of friendship building and solidarity. It is also part of our prayer glorifying God. But it is little use preparing the building if we have not prepared ourselves.
Some Christians spend fruitless emotional energy speculating on the motives of those who will ‘invade’ our midnight Mass on their annual outing and the best way of ‘dealing’ with them. It is worth reminding those who feel like that that it is not our Mass. ‘They’ are our guests and his and that a warm welcome and a helping hand with the liturgy and hymn book deal very well with most eventualities. (For those who have come to disrupt I never had the slightest hesitation in recruiting off-duty police friends or local rugby club members to offer ministry of a more specialized kind.) . As for motives I can tell you with absolute certainty that they will range from ‘Something to do after the pubs shut’ to the loneliness of bereavement, a memory of childhood, the chance to bring the whole family for a blessing, right through to a sudden mystical stirring and search for the ultimate purpose. Actually the motives do not matter very much. I have presented people from all those categories, in due course, for confirmation and most priests will tell you the same. My own first voluntary visit to an Anglican Church was a Midnight Mass, my cider jug deposited behind a convenient gravestone. I went in and sang my heart out for an hour and left convinced that their kindness was an understandable response to my extraordinary vocal enthusiasm. The fact is that all of 'them', just like you and me, have been brought there by God. For an hour of their lives they have been placed in the hands of the disciples, you and me, and we can profoundly help or hinder the next steps God wants them to take in his own time. Our journeys, after all, were not free of mixed motives or stumbling footsteps. Yet we have come this far because he called us, however obscurely, and we came. Indeed, those neophytes whom we will welcome at midnight or in the dawning of the day act as icons or our past – ‘when we were still far off you met us in your Son and brought us home’. There is nowhere like the Feast of the Nativity for underlining the immensity of God's initiation of our salvation.
Our preparation for ourselves and for our midnight guests and Nativity visitors must be, as always, steeped in remembrance and thanksgiving. In the climactic last days of Advent our whole attention should be focused on his coming. Where better to begin then than at the pinnacle of the Ministry of the Word when the gospeller proclaims the Prologue of St John. Once read at the end of every mass, until its familiarity blunted its purpose, it retains a unique ability to give us the cosmic picture. ‘In the beginning was the Word…’ What is it that we celebrate? It is no less than that the reality, persona, presence, energy of God, the power behind all creation, the co-eternal, before all worlds has taken flesh, become man, one of us, at the mercy of fallen humanity, incarnatus est. We do well to kneel at that point in both Gospel and Creed and our demeanour will tell the world what we really believe. It is immense, it is amazing and it is for us. Audiences come to watch the performance. Congregations worship. As an old Protestant friend of mine once remarked, ‘If I believed what you Catholics believe about the real presence, I would be a darn sight more reverent than you are’. A timely rebuke to much modern Catholic worship.
As we ponder the immensity of God's gift, the only begotten Son of the Father, we inevitably turn to the portal of salvation, the Blessed Virgin Mary upon whose word of loving surrender to the divine will rests the opportunity of redemption. Few areas of meditation will prepare us as richly for the celebration of this great feast than devotion to Our Lady. Confronted by the Word of God she is troubled and baffled but she is obedient. Challenged by a vocation surrounded by earthly terror yet filled with heavenly promise she accepts absolutely. Overshadowed by the Holy Spirit of God Mary brings forth Christ into the world. She will give the Church her supreme commandment, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ She will follow Christ from the cradle to the Calvary. At the beginning and at the end of the beginning she will hold him in her arms, sacrament and saviour. It is for all these reasons that Mary is the icon of the Church and mother of each beloved disciple. Her pattern must be ours if we are to present Christ to the world in our time. We will only do so if, like her, we have a heart of love for Jesus. The Ark of the New and everlasting Covenant, with her we bear the living Word of God before the people, triumphant over man's oldest enemies of sin and death.
Gate of Heaven
And we must be confident in our preaching and teaching on Mary's virginity, for much depends upon it. It is ironic that in an age in which human beings can confect virgin births in humans and livestock alike, we should so much doubt God’s sovereign capacity to act and interact with his children. Much research indicates that many church attenders (and many clergy for that matter) do not believe in the Virgin Birth. It is possible to acknowledge the Virgin Birth and not be a Christian. The Muslims do as much. It is difficult to see how anyone can deny the Virgin Birth and claim the Christian faith. For the reality of Christ is not that he was a special man sired by human parents and adopted by God. The reality of Christ is that he is the wedding of heaven and earth, of God and man. Only so can our salvation come about. In Christ God takes man through life and death and into the presence of the Father by cleansing us of all unrighteousness in the life force of his blood. A Christ not fully God cannot help us. A Christ not fully man cannot represent us. The virginity of Mary is not some pious myth but the prerequisite of the divine act. Though our own hearts have been unfaithful and sullied yet we too must rediscover in God the first love and the last love of our lives. Orthodox theology is not some abstruse theory but the very stuff of life and resonates at the deepest levels of our being. Once we have known the truth of it there can be no retreat and no surrender but to God alone.
If we seek more simple human inspiration we can turn to the Shepherds or to the Magi. For one group it is the shortest journey, the revelation of a night. For the other it is the result of years of learning, calculation and commitment – a journey from afar. Sudden revelation or dawning realization, there are many ways to the Christ child. Orthodox Christians are beginning to walk in the ways of the Magi. They have often had to travel far, in these darkening days, to worship the true Christ. They understand that the growing persecution may, as of old, mean the unthinkable exile of the Tabernacle of God with man. That the faithful worshipper may yet, all gifts given, have to make the long journey home ‘by another way’.
But we must never lose the excitement and enthusiasm of the shepherds. How long since we have felt that, done that, shared the faith? If not, why not? We may not have witnessed the angelic host but we have sung with them and knelt before the same Lord. We know the good news. Like the shepherds we must share it.
Think on these things and when they come to you at Carol Service or Midnight Mass or Christmas morning you will be prepared for them, ready to help them unwrap the great and central mystery of their lives. There is only one Christmas present. Jesus Christ – Son of God – Saviour.
Robbie Low lives and writes in Cornwall.
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